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May 03, 2019
May day in the midst of the Greek trade unionism’s cold
While labor in Greece has been hit hard by economic recession, workers' trust in trade unionism has been declined. The problems of Greek Trade Unions are indisputable.
May 03, 2019

Photograph: Nadir Noori
Edit: Elvira Krithari
Translation: Gigi Papoulias

Lavrio, dawn of April 8th, 1896

1,800 workers came out from the 182-meters deep mining wells in the Lavrion area, blocked all the ways in and declared the first major strike in Greece.

The strike ended after 14 days with the army’s intervention, leaving behind four workers dead and many wounded. The strikers attained only an insignificant increase in wages, while in the mines of Lavrio a permanent military body was established to prevent new insurrections.

In, 1929, on the occasion of another strike, the correspondent of the communist newspaper “Rizospastis” describes the wretched conditions that continue to exist 33 years later: “There are more than 2,500 workers in the Mines (…) Working 8 hours a day, they are obliged, due to the extremely low salaries, to work overtime, raising the hours of work to 12 and reaching their maximum wage to 60 drachmas. One of the biggest and most severe dangers is the lead poisoning that almost everyone suffer to such a degree where, after a few years, they are completely obsolete. The doctor of Alexander company told them clearly: If I cut a piece of meat on top of you and throw it into a dog, it will certainly kick the bucket.”

Athens, April – May 2019

Yet another Labor Day was not celebrated commonly, since more than 2 separate rallies were planned. However, this is not the only indication of the fragmentation of domestic trade unionism. On May 6, and after two failed attempts, the Athens Court of First Instance will order to a temporary administration to reorganize the 37th Congress of the Greek Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE).

Most workers in the country seem to be extremely indifferent to the dilutive phenomena that have led the conflicting sides to the courts. For a long time, the de-isolation of trade unions has been consolidated, since trade union density, that is the participation of private sector workers in trade unions, is no more than 10%.

The polarization between the different parts has brought to light the long-lasting pathogenesis of the trade union movement, which could not even be imagined by the insurgent workers of Lavrio 123 years ago: the lack of transparency in the emergence of trade union representatives (charges of fraud among them are running wild), the phenomenon of employers’ syndicalism, extreme fragmentation and ultimately the complete removal of GSEE leadership from labor interests.

A century after its establishment, the top organization of workers in Greece resembles a heavily ill patient, and surely state intervention through justice will not lead to any treatment.

Bread and Roses

In the late 1990s, the “Justice for Janitors” movement breaks out in the US. A few years before the Great Depression of 2008, it was the hard workers of the American working class, the migrants who worked in cleanliness with low wages and without medical care, who struggled for basic labor rights.

In a typical scene of the film “Bread and Roses”, based on the Janitors’ struggle, Ken Loach “puts” the migrant cleaning lady Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) asking the unionist Sam (Adrien Brody): “And why should I trust you, when was the last time you worked in a cleaning service? ”

For the trade unionism the major question today is, how it will gain workers trust, how collective action will once again become attractive to the world of Labour, at a time when trade unionism seems to have no room for the precarious of the time, the precarious workers, the migrants, the women.

Back to Trade Unions

An open and wide-ranging dialogue to overcome the crisis of the trade union movement seems to be the obvious proposition, according to Dimitris Katsoridas, Scientific Associate of the Institute of Labor of the GSEE (INSE – GSEE). Moreover, the establishment of an “e-register and a trade union booklet, in order to ensure fair electoral procedures and the establishment of limited mandates and the rotation of the institutions” are ways to modernize the established trade unionist way, says Mr. Katsoridas.

Trade unions, according to him, have to attract those workers who are still outside the structures of the organized trade union movement, such as new categories of employees and technicians, particularly in the service sector, foreign workers, women, as well as the large number of unemployed and precarious workers.

Yannis Kouzis, Professor of Industrial Relations at Panteion University shares the shame view. “In order for the labor movement to be restarted, it is necessary (among other things) to facilitate the integration of all flexible forms of labor, the blockbuster pseudo-workers, the creation of unions in multidisciplinary activities, and trade union representation in small and medium-sized enterprises with a business committee of the sector since only 2% of all small businesses have it. ”

“Extreme fragmentation has come to its pinnacle with the struggles of mechanisms in view of the 37th Congress,” the Professor continues, “which eventually has been thrown in the air. Conflicts are the responsibility of all parties. A syndicated movement on the verge of split, which can not even organize a joint celebration on May Day, is not able to intervene where the new facets of Labor live and work,” concludes Mr. Kouzis.

Dimitris Katsoridas adds that “the solution is not organizational, but primarily political and ideological, in the sense that trade unions have to restore their confidence again to workers and especially to new generations, so that they cease to consider them bureaucratic, unreliable, manipulable and with intense party polarization “.

The acquisition of more flexible structures to pass decision-making to lower levels of organization, through direct democratic methods, is essential, Mr. Katsoridas adds, giving a brief outline of the debate that the trade union movement itself should open, first and foremost mainly with employees.

As in Loch’s films, the heroes of any story are everyday people who resist exploitation.

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